The purpose of this Bill is to provide for a scheme of constituencies to replace those set out in the parts of the Electoral (Amendment) Act, 1959, which were declared by the High Court to be repugnant to the Constitution.
Senators will already have obtained information as to the effects of the proposed revision from the maps which I have had placed in the Oireachtas library, from the explanatory memorandum which was circulated to them with the Bill, and from the various statistical statements compiled by the Central Statistics Office. In the circumstances I do not think it is necessary for me to go into detail here about the changes. The erratum slip issued with the explanatory memorandum may now be ignored since the discrepancy between the Bill and the memorandum to which the slip referred was corrected by means of committee stage amendment No. 6 in the Dáil. I should like to remind Senators, however, that the statements and the maps which have been placed in the Oireachtas library are based on the Bill as introduced in the Dáil.
The Bill provides for the same total number of Deputies as the 1959 Act, that is 144, which is the maximum representation permitted by the Constitution on the basis of a population of 2,898,264 as ascertained at the census taken in April, 1956. There are those who argue that 144 Deputies is excessive and I have discussed the point on many occasions. As roughly half of this total will be in opposition, then only the remaining half remains from which to appoint Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries. It is obviously undesirable that those holding posts as Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries should form too high a proportion of the Government side of the House. But if the membership of the Dáil is too drastically reduced, this is precisely what will happen. It is not a valid argument to point to other countries in which representation may be at the rate of one member to every 40,000 or 80,000 or even 100,000 of the population. Such ratios in countries with high populations give representative Houses with three, four and five times the total number of members that we have here; and the difficulties to which I have referred do not arise.
If the proposal to have a House of 144 members is approved, the next Dáil will have three fewer members than the present House. It is proposed to increase the existing representation of Dublin city and county by four members and to add a further member to the constituency of Kildare which is being extended to incorporate some district electoral divisions in Meath and Westmeath. To compensate for the gain of five seats to these areas and to provide for the reduction of three in the total membership of the House, it is necessary to reduce by one member in each case the present representation of constituencies in Cavan, Donegal, Galway, Kerry, Longford-Westmeath, Sligo-Leitrim, Wexford and Waterford.
Section 3 and the Schedule of the Bill provide for 38 constituencies as against 40 under the Act of 1947. There will be an increase from 9 to 12 in the number of four-member constituencies and a reduction from 22 to 17 in three-member constituencies. The number of five-member constituencies will remain unchanged, at nine.
To secure ratios of population to Deputies close enough to the national average of one Deputy to each 20,127 of the population to comply with the High Court decision, it was necessary in some cases to take into constituencies areas in other counties or administrative units. This has given rise to many vehement protests. I am in the unfortunate position of agreeing most wholeheartedly with those protests— as anyone who read my evidence in the course of the High Court action will be aware—but I can do nothing, as the law stands, to remedy the matter. I am compelled to breach county boundaries if the conformity of ratios which the High Court decision requires is to be observed. If there is dissatisfaction at the results of this course the blame cannot fairly be laid on me.
A question which has been raised in connection with the Bill is whether or not it will be referred to the Supreme Court. I should like to clear the air on this point again. Article 26 of the Constitution says:
"The President may, after consultation with the Council of State, refer any Bill to which this Article applies to the Supreme Court for a decision as to whether such Bill or any specified provision or provisions of such Bill is or are repugnant to this Constitution or to any provision thereof."
It is, therefore, not my function or a function of the Government to decide whether or not the Bill will go to the Supreme Court. It is the function of the President, after consultation with the Council of State.
With regard to the text of the Bill, Section 5 is the usual section in Bills of this kind, providing the necessary declaration as to the new constituency which corresponds to the present constituency represented by the Ceann Comhairle.
On the coming into force of the Bill, many areas will be in new constituencies. The purpose of Section 6 is to provide, by direction, for the entry in the registers of electors published last month and in other similar documents of the name of the new constituency in which a transferred area is situated. It is intended that the names will be stamped on to the registers and other documents.
Section 7 makes provision for the persons who are to be returning officers and assistant returning officers in the new constituencies. The part of the section dealing with assistant returning officers is longer than the corresponding parts in the two preceding Acts because of the greater variety of constituencies, but it makes no change of substance, apart from the change of a tidying nature in subsection (2) which makes it clear that an assistant returning officer must perform the duties of his office.
Section 8 is also of an administrative nature. It will enable returning officers to arrange for polling places where an existing polling district is divided by a new constituency. This arrangement will require the Minister's sanction and will apply only until such time as the local authorities can make new polling schemes conforming to the new constituencies.
The High Court declared subsection (1) of Section 3, Section 4 and the Schedule of the Electoral (Amendment) Act, 1959, repugnant to the Constitution. Rather than introduce a Bill simply to replace these parts of the 1959 Act and make such further amendments in it as might be necessary, it is considered more appropriate to repeal the 1959 Act in its entirety and to replace it by the present Bill. Section 9 of the Bill accordingly proposes the complete and immediate repeal of the 1959 Act. The section also provides that the Electoral (Amendment) Act, 1947, which sets out the present Dáil constituencies will be repealed on the next dissolution of Dáil Éireann.